When two beautiful, perfect people fall in love in Nicholas Sparks’s universe as of late, any evil people hovering along the fringes of their lives should seek immediate shelter. Love always conquers, and anyone who stands in its way doesn’t just lose. They die. It happens at the end of Safe Haven, when an abusive ex takes a header in the middle of a raging fire. It happens at the end of The Lucky One, when an abusive ex falls victim to flash flooding caused by a legitimate “finger of God” thunderstorm. It doesn’t actually take much effort to unpack the intense loathing Sparks focuses upon his antagonists as resentment against his profuse critics, the same bunch of Cormac McCarthy-worshipping misanthropists who Sparks must assume simply hate simple love. And yet, perhaps even Sparks resists being categorized in the context of “simple,” because the book that’s now become his latest movie-date-night indulgence, The Best of Me, sidesteps (but hardly subverts) some of those elements that have become givens in his paperback kingdom. And if only his characters were more realistically drawn, Sparks’s own flat cynicism might have remained a faint undertaste.
“I’m just a roughneck that got lucky,” unassuming oil-rig worker Dawson Cole (James Marsden) tells his co-workers at the beginning of the film, though he’s immediately shown using his midnight lunch break to page through one of Stephen Hawkings’s books. (Smart, humble, and ruggedly not afraid of a little grease! Are your loins stirring yet?) His luck holds out even after the rig explodes into flames, flinging him out into the ocean, where he’s rescued after somehow having been underwater for four hours. As he’s still recovering, he receives a phone call from the executor of Tuck Hostetler’s (Gerald McRaney) estate, who summons him to help scatter the recently passed old coot’s ashes. Meanwhile, married upper-class mother Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) is receiving the same call, and manages to inform her scoffing husband between his profuse tee times that she intends to make the trip out (“I’m sorry. Next time someone I love dies, I’ll make sure it works with your schedule”).
As with any other Sparks plot, you can see where this is all going from the beginning. Especially when, much like The Notebook, it launches into flashbacks, of how Dawson and Amanda came to meet back in high school, that are held in counterpoint to their sad, yearning present-day situation. As it turns out, and because people never change in Sparks’s world, they have basically been the same people since back in 1992. She comes from a line of wealthy, tactless snobs; he from a violent backwoods clan of meth enthusiasts. She instantly sees beyond their class differences and recognizes his potential, especially when she finds him atop the town’s water tower and he says he goes up there because he feels “like it brings me closer to the stars.” (He got 1520 on his SATs.) He frets that if she associates with him, she’ll get dragged down by his family. That or he’s worried that because she’s 17 and, to judge by actor Luke Bracey’s looks and physique, he’s pushing 30, the law might step in.
Even permitting that the movie’s setup counts almost by default as one of Sparks’s more complicated scenarios, that makes his failure to draw up compelling, flawed, human characters all the more conspicuous. Here there are only saints and sinners, neither particularly interesting. When one of the two thwarted lovers admits in a climactic moment, “I made a mistake,” no one in the audience believes it for a second. Conversely, when the younger Amanda examines shirtless Dawson’s various scars in front of the fireplace and he explains what he did to make his father give him each one (“This one was for talking too loud. This one was for not talking at all”), she weeps for his lot in life. Does anyone honestly think she would weep for him had he, for the sake of argument, actually lapsed at some point in his vulnerable youth and instead had to explain to her why his torso was now encased by do-it-yourself white-supremacist tattoos? Early on, Dawson’s cousin says his knocked-up girlfriend’s parents are fine with them having a baby together so long as they name it “something bibilical,” a comment that falls directly in line with the worldview of a bestselling author who genuinely seems to believe that people are marked, sorted, and predestined at birth.